The common name for God is Lowa (Duala, Loba). He is believed to be an omnipotent, spiritual being and the creator of all visible things. But after having set going the machinery of the universe, He no longer takes any interest in the affairs of this visible world and of men – and men on the other hand take very little interest in him.
Lowa, or Lowa-leyoyo, is frequently mentioned in connection with the firmament, and at times identified with the same. Other older names of God are Owasi and Iwonde, which means father, shepherd, a good, benevolent being. In the Calabar dialect it is Obasi, in the Duala, Ebasi. The true meaning of these terms is “Omnipotent,” “father.”
The heavenly bodies, particularly sun and moon, are very often connected with the idea of God. When the sun rises, He is called Elowa – Lowa, that is God, as thought of in connection with strength, superiority, endurance; when in the meridian, He is called Ibwel (intense, penetrating heat), and on his setting Ewongo – Wongo, which means “much afraid” – He withdraws, disappears, hides himself. The power of the sun, i.e., the effect of his rays is generally feared. For this reason, the sun is not half as well loved as his consort, the moon. The latter is called by the endearing name of mbamb’a Lowa (Grandmother of God). Her common name is mbwende (the moving one, month), derived from the verb ende, to go, walk or move.
When the moon rises, the natives say: “She has brought us the birth.” In by-gone days it was a common belief – and some of the old people share this belief to the present day – that no birth is possible without the benevolent influence of the moon. The birth of a child often was called outright a “birth of the moon.”
During the time of the new moon the witch doctors and medicine men take the herb kuboko and the wild growing fruit angalanga, go to some crossroad, gaze intently at the moon and cry out: “Grandmother of God, now that we have seen thee, we beseech thee to see to it, that many patients may come to us desiring our services.”
If anyone beholds the new moon as she suddenly appears through a rend in the clouds, he will take the leaf of a certain shrub, twist it into a cone and breaking it on the clenched fist of his left-hand say: “I shall come into a fortune, things will go well with me, for I have seen the moon.”
In olden times, if anyone showed his teeth to the moon, they fell out, and if any one pointed at the moon with his finger, the digit dropped off.
The stars are believed to be the attendants and servants of the moon. When the moon rises, especially at the time of the full moon, she is enthusiastically greeted by young and old with the cry: “Ela! Mbamb’a Lowa a mawusa!” (Hurrah! The grand mother of God has come forth!)
Next to God the good and benevolent spirit called Lowa, there also exists a malevolent spiritual being called Mokase. Mokase reighs supreme in the dominions of evil. He is the devil in Wakweli religious belief, commonly known as Nyambe with the Duala and numerous other Bantu tribes. He is the inspiration and moving power of demons and every other manifestation of evil. He furthermore is the sworn enemy of Lowa, and of men. Like Lowa, Mokase too has his abode in spheres beyond. If, at the death of a man, the departed spirit or shadow seeks to gain entrance into the realms of Lowa, the good spirit, and to be reunited with departed members of his clan, Mokase stands ready to grasp him and throw him into a lake of fire.
All departed spirits must pass through Mokase’s domain and overcome him in a single combat, if they would cross the narrow gangway that leads over the deep abyss which separates the realms of Mokase and Lowa. There is no other way to be united with the shades of the ancestors or enter into the abodes of the blessed.
In order to assist the departed in their final struggle with Mokase, a cutlass or a spear is buried with the corpse.
If a person dies with his mouth wide open, it is a sure sign of his doom. Mokase will overcome him. To avert such a calamity, the lower jaw of a dying person is held tight and his mouth closed by tying it with a strip pf fiber. The same belief and practice I found among the Duala and Bo tribes.
It now and then happens that dying persons are under the delusion that Mokase (the devil) has appeared to them in human form to drag them away, and they cry out in a last effort to save themselves from his clutches: “Mokase! Mokase! Pao! Pao! E minye pao!” (The devil! The devil! A cutlass! A Cutlass!! Be quick and hand me a cutlass!)
The Wakweli, Duala, Bassa and many other African tribes believe that the devil is white. Whenever he chooses to appear in bodily form…
If a man emerges triumphantly from his struggle with Mokase, then all is well. From Lowa there is nothing to fear.
The Wakweli know nothing of an impending judgment.
The consummation of all happiness and of eternal bliss is found in the deliverance forever from the power of demons and malevolent spirits, from sickness and pain, and in the reunion with the ancestors of the clan. Life in the hereafter is but a continuation of life on the earth. The spirits of the departed live together in clans and communities with the same wealth and the same social standing and influence which they enjoyed during the physical existence while on earth. Upon this belief is founded the killing of cattle and slaves in case of death, and of burying them with the deceased. Some years ago, when old Chief Sacko of the town of Great Soppo died, 50 head of cattle were killed and buried with him, not counting the sacrifices offered at the gathering of the clan and during the period of mourning.
Slaves destined for Sacrifice were tied to a tree or post then killed with spears by relatives of the deceased. The slaves required for the occasion were purchased from neighbouring tribes. Among the Wakweli, slavery as a system was never established. Animals set apart to accompany the deceased are tied to stakes and slowly tortured to death and cutlasses and spears.
The continuation of the clan on the hereafter is dependent on the uninterrupted succession of male progenitors during the period of physical existence.
For surviving relatives it is a sacred duty to sacrifice and make offerings for the dead. To neglect this means to jeopardize both their own happiness and that of the clan.
The spirits of the departed influence and determine the affairs of the living to a great extent. Their dissatisfaction and displeasure means suffering, material loss, and even death. For this reason people beware of slighting them. In special cases their aid is invoked for protection and help. Offerings of cooked food and palmwine are placed on their graves and their spirits avail themselves of the soul substance contained in the gifts.
Libations, either rum or palmwine, are poured into small calabashes or earthen pots and placed under a stone or put into an excavation at the head of the grave. While the libation is offered, the supplicant implores the spirits of his ancestors which are supposed to hover near, having been attracted by the odor emanating from the offering – to help him and grant his petition. Libations of this kind are frequently poured by hunters, in order to be successful in bagging the game.
The living, particularly children are always in danger of being drawn away or taken by the departed. To guard against this, a charm called etingo is tied around the neck of the child, in order to deflect the attention of the covetous spirits.
*Carl Bender was a German-American Baptist Missionary who lived in Great Soppo, Buea from 1899 to 1921, and from 1932 to 1935. He died on November 10, 1935 when he slipped and fell while completing work on the Steeple of the newly built Soppo church.
**Carl Bender’s biography, “Cameroon on a Clear Day”, written by his daughter Helga Bender Henry, who was born in Great Soppo in 1915, is now available from Amazon.com.